May Day this year comes at a time when the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” bill (CIR) seems on the verge of becoming a reality. Millions of undocumented immigrant workers hope that CIR will bring them relief from police harassment and the threat of deportation. They hope it will allow them to gain legal residence and even citizenship. But in fact this bill betrays those hopes and steps up anti-immigrant attacks.
The CIR bill reinforces the measures already being used to jail and deport a record number of immigrants. It allocates billions of dollars to the construction of border fences and drone surveillance. It will inevitably add to the numbers who die each year trying to cross the border, and those trapped and suffering in local jails and detention centers. The wide array of requirements that undocumented immigrants will have to meet will mean that most are unlikely to ever see its promised “pathway to citizenship.” And all these onerous provisions are expected to be expanded over the next six months, as the politicians in Washington negotiate the bill’s final terms.
The extraordinary uprising of protest by undocumented immigrants in 2006 defeated a bill that would have criminalized undocumented immigrants. It was a huge mass movement, but its reformist leaders directed the struggle away from mass action in the streets and workplaces, and toward more passive electoralism: lobbying politicians and voting, especially for Democrats. Nevertheless, the harassment and deportation of undocumented immigrants dramatically increased under the Obama administration, but the leadership avoided organizing a nationwide struggle and the movement lost further ground. The repressive CIR bill is punishment for this approach. Facing this reality is the necessary starting point for a renewed struggle for the rights of undocumented workers.
The massive protests around May Day in 2006 and after showed the potential to not only win victories for undocumented immigrants, but to also spark struggles by native-born workers. This movement revived the tradition of protests on May Day – the international day of workers’ solidarity – which had been ignored for many years by the labor movement in this country.
As the world economy slides toward another Great Depression, attacks on the whole working class will increase. The struggles of undocumented immigrants, who are among this country’s most exploited and oppressed people, can show the way forward for the rest of the working class in a united struggle. Together we can stop all the capitalists’ attacks and win rights for immigrants and gains for all workers – and challenge the imperialist capitalist system that survives based on exploitation and oppression.
To avoid the danger of being confronted by united working-class struggles against it, capitalism relies on dividing workers of one nation against another, as well as dividing the working class within nations using racism, national chauvinism, sexism and other reactionary tactics. Today the globe is dominated by an imperialist system that has made the working class more international than ever. While corporations move factories around the world in search of the cheapest labor, millions of immigrants have been pushed out of their homelands by conditions of economic and political desperation imposed by imperialism. Yet those who have managed to get to the U.S., avoiding Coast Guard and Border Guard assaults, have been received with racist and chauvinist hatred, ICE and police brutality, and super-exploitative jobs. The threat of police harassment and deportation hangs over whole communities as a basic fact of everyday life.
The big capitalists do not want to grant immigrants equal status with native-born workers. They need to be able to hire immigrant workers who are lower-paid and have a less secure status that makes it riskier for them to organize struggles against the bosses. They essentially have this ability under present laws, but this situation is widely seen as unfair, especially by immigrants. So the politicians, particularly the Democrats but now increasingly the Republicans too, feel pressure to raise illusions and false hopes that they really stand for immigrant rights. For them this is necessary in order to appeal to the growing number of Latino voters, but also to pacify masses of immigrant workers with the promise of real gains in their status. So they make promises about a “path to citizenship” for some undocumented immigrants while maintaining the overall stress on border enforcement and policing.
Like his predecessors, President Obama as Commander-in-Chief has waged imperialist wars around the world, carrying out mass murder from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Libya and Yemen, using everything from troops on the ground to remote-controlled drones. He has tightened economic sanctions against the people of Iran and North Korea, which means choking the economy and blockading trade so that vital medicines and foodstuffs can’t get through.
At home, Obama has also carried out ruthless policies consistent with imperialism’s need for higher profits. First he bailed out Wall Street at the cost of horrendous unemployment and continuing foreclosures and cutbacks. He is now in the process of pushing budget cuts that will make working people suffer more, including unprecedented cuts to Medicare and Social Security. And Obama has proved to be no better for Blacks, Latinos and immigrants than the Republicans before him. He has done nothing to counter the greatest relative fall in living standards for people of color in this country’s history. He has continued to ignore the routine harassment and even murder of Black youth by police across the country, aside from the occasional word of concern for the most high-profile cases. And he has broken records for the number of undocumented immigrants incarcerated, detained and deported. No wonder some militant activists have awarded him the title of Deporter-in-Chief!
Many activists have been rightly outraged for years about the way that the Obama administration has outdone Bush with record-setting numbers of both detentions and deportations, over 400,000 every year. These huge numbers have been achieved by the expanded use of the E-verify computer system to check the immigration status of workers, increased cooperation by police forces in handing over arrested immigrants to ICE, and legal changes that re-categorized many immigrants as “criminals” because they were stopped for a minor traffic violation, passed a bad check once, or had simply been caught trying to enter the U.S.
Some activists have called for an end to all deportations or at least for an immediate moratorium. As one example the National Day Laborer Organizing Network recently launched a campaign called #Not1MoreDeportation. (But the more powerful and connected immigrant rights organizations like the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and the supposed pro-immigrant labor allies in the powerful AFL-CIO do next to nothing, when they are not actually obstructing struggle.)
Labor unions have the power and could use their resources to make a huge difference by mobilizing workers, immigrant and U.S. born, against these policies. But the union leaders, like those of many pro-immigrant community outfits, did not and would not mount a real national campaign. They have not even raised the idea that the criminalization of immigrants has to stop, including by overturning the expanded definitions of what constitutes a crime and ending mandatory detention and deportations.
Quite the opposite. In fact, in February leaders of many unions and groups, including the SEIU, the United Farm Workers, the AFL-CIO, as well as the NCLR, the NAACP and America’s Voice, went through the motions of meeting with Obama to politely “ask him to reconsider” his administration’s deportation policies. Obama predictably “declined to make adjustments” and told the meeting that he is focused on “getting reform passed, and not easing up on enforcement.” None of the guests at this White House meeting have spoken out against Obama’s insistence on continuing his program of mass deportations.
Obviously, rabidly anti-immigrant Republicans in states like Arizona, Alabama and Georgia have pushed through laws that openly champion racial and ethnic profiling and have to be smashed. But Obama and the Democrats are playing the leading role in the crackdown on immigrants nationally. As a New York Times editorial had to admit, “President Obama says the right words about giving hope to the unauthorized, but is still playing the role of hard-core enforcer: his administration is deporting people at record rates and keeping detention cells full.”
The sweeping deal announced on April 17 is over 500 pages long. It is the product of collaboration of four Democratic and four Republican Senators, called “the Gang of 8.” It will be a while before all the details can be definitively analyzed and translated into clear non-legal language. But the general scheme of things is already clear. The New York Times reported that “the senators placed a series of conditions, or triggers, along the pathway, that would require the Department of Homeland Security to spend as much as $6.5 billion over 10 years to increase enforcement and extend fencing along the Southwest border. The border security programs would have to be fully operational before any immigrants who had been here illegally would be able to apply for permanent resident cards, the first step toward becoming American citizens.”
There is absolutely no plan to reduce the numbers of detentions and deportations, so that already eliminates a large number of undocumented immigrants from any benefit from the “reform.” Because the bill does not change the definition of what constitutes a “crime” making detention and deportation “mandatory,” continued escalation of the status quo is inevitable. The Gang of 8 proposal would offer a legal probationary status to some immigrants who can manage to pass a criminal background check, pay a fine and pay back taxes – but they still would not be eligible for federal benefits like Social Security and Medicare despite being charged the payroll deductions that finance those benefits. And undocumented immigrants would have to “go to the back of the line” to apply for green cards for permanent residency – once they are at the point, years from now, where they might even be allowed to apply. Importantly, the longer undocumented immigrants are forced to wait before applying for permanent residency, the more time there will be for politicians to try to push through more anti-immigrant changes to the law.
The proposed bill contains two new “guest worker” programs, one for agricultural labor and another for other low-wage labor. These programs had been negotiated with labor unions behind the scenes; a key issue was the pay level for guest workers. The deal that union leaders have reportedly agreed to was that they would be paid at least the “prevailing industry wage as determined by the Labor Department,” which appears to be close to the approach of the current bill.
Whatever the purported pay promise, any such program would automatically be abusive, as has always been the case, most infamously with the “Bracero” program of the 1940’s through the 1960’s. “Guest workers” are second-class workers who have a separate status without the rights that other workers in the U.S. have acquired. The purpose of immigrant labor for the capitalists is to undermine the wages and conditions of all workers through divide and conquer, and the use of guest worker programs is an extreme form of this tactic.
A new feature being proposed now is the emphasis on bringing in more skilled technical workers with advanced degrees. Even though these immigrants would be given a far more encouraging treatment than low wage and agricultural workers, the capitalists still prefer them because they can be paid less and they save the state from investing in educating a new generation of workers here.
The immense immigrant rights struggle that began in 2006 has been badly derailed and urgently needs to find a new course. This will be an uphill effort of no small proportion, but the objective power of the immigrant workforce in this country, especially when connected in struggle to other workers, should not be underestimated.
Immigrant workers are not fated to just be victims of capitalist imperialism, as bad as the present situation is. In fact, they have great potential power – they now make up a key part of the working class in the United States. The hidden secret of capitalism is that the bosses are dependent on the labor of the working class to make the system operate. Workers have the power to make factories, transport, services, and all the functions of the economy run – or to make them stop.
Immigrant workers now have a central place in core sectors of the U.S. economy. The capitalist strategy has been to take advantage of immigrants’ vulnerable status to exploit them more intensely, hoping they will be too intimidated to fight back – as well as to set native-born workers against them to divide the working class. This strategy has been relatively successful for the capitalists for decades, thanks in large part to the role of the bureaucrats who control the country’s unions and who have refused to lead militant mass struggles.
But even in the current period when the overall level of class struggle remains low, there are examples of immigrants leading workers’ struggles that point the way to the way bigger role that can be realized in the future. In 2008, the factory occupation by the mostly immigrant workforce at Republic Windows in Chicago captured the attention and the support of broad layers of the working class public, because it was a bold stand against the wave of factory closings and job losses sweeping the country in the Great Recession. Native-born white and Black workers, along with good sections of the middle class, supported the action despite the fact that it was an “illegal” occupation by mostly undocumented immigrants!
And last year, several different groups of immigrant workers carried out strikes at suppliers and warehouses that form the backbone of Walmart’s supply chain. They were protesting low wages, miserable and dangerous working conditions and company attempts to retaliate against workers for organizing efforts. The simultaneous warehouse strikes in Southern California and Illinois in September were particularly threatening to Walmart. After 21 days on strike, the 38 Illinois warehouse workers won their main demand for an end to illegal retaliation against workers protesting poor conditions, the re-instatement of every worker illegally disciplined, and full pay for the time they were on strike! The total number of workers on strike was less than 100, but they had enough power to compel Walmart, the biggest private employer in the world, to agree to their main demands. The potential for immigrants to lead workers’ struggles will be so much the greater in the future when workers’ strikes return to being the order of the day, rather than the rarity they have become in the U.S.
Imperialist capitalism promotes competition over a shrinking number of jobs. Chauvinist demagogues encourage anti-immigrant sentiments among other workers in this country, including white workers as well as Blacks and Latinos who are kept down by a racist society and are often set up to compete with immigrants for low-wage positions. However, many workers and youth of color are also able to see that the same kind of profiling and brutality used to keep down immigrant workers and youth is used against Blacks and Latinos as a matter of course. The reason is the same: the system needs Blacks and Latinos to feel intimidated, disempowered and hopeless. It is also the case that many white workers are far from being as relatively well off as they used to be. They are facing many attacks on their living standards and their needs are also being more and more blatantly disregarded by the powers-that-be because of the profound weakening of the U.S. economy. Working-class people thus have an interest in overcoming racial and national divisions and uniting in struggle against the capitalist attacks.
History shows that the working class and oppressed people can win gains through militant mass actions and massive strikes. Such struggles can force legislators to change laws or their enforcement for the better in the hope of calming down rebellions. Deep divisions within the working class in our society will not be overcome overnight. But the working class has shown in the past that once its fury is unleashed, it is quite capable of uniting to fight for its common interests. The economic crisis of international capitalism will only get worse in the future, and this will force the working class into greater struggles, probably very suddenly. Even workers who seem very conservative today will be involved. Surely workers and youth of color will have to play a key role in the struggles ahead, which will help insure that crucial demands against racism and national chauvinism become key demands for the struggle as a whole.
To make united action a reality, and to defend all workers from the ongoing capitalist attacks, we revolutionary socialists often point to the need for a general strike, which can bring all profit-making to a halt and demonstrate the power our class has when it is united. Unifying demands like “Jobs for All” linked to a massive program of public works can provide a vision of how it is possible to employ everyone productively and provide necessary goods, services and infrastructure.
In the course of building the resistance which lies ahead, more workers will see the need to get rid of the capitalist system altogether. That means a socialist revolution that creates a new workers’ state, dedicated to creating a socialist society where production is organized toward meeting human needs rather than private profits. To do this will require the leadership of an internationalist revolutionary party made up of the most politically conscious workers and youth. Building such a party is what the League for the Revolutionary Party stands for.
2012 Election: Obama No Answer to Republican Reactionaries – September 3, 2012
Rising Attacks on Immigrants Show ... Obama Is No Alternative to Republicans – May 1, 2012
May Day 2011: Immigrant Workers and the U.S. Class Struggle – April 22, 2011
Stop the Capitalist War on Immigrants!Unconditional Amnesty for All! – distributed in Phoenix, Arizona, May 9, 2010
Immigrants’ Rights Are Workers’ Rights! (includes “No to the Pentagon’s ‘Dream Act’”) – May 1, 2010
Workers Need a Revolutionary Strategy: Complete, Unconditional Amnesty for All Immigrants Now! – May 1, 2009
Oppose All the Anti-Immigration Bills! Millions March for Immigrant Rights – April 21, 2006
1. The ACLU-TN Immigrant Resource Center publication (www.aclu-tn.org), Immigration Detention and Removal: A Guide for Detainees and Their Families, 2007.
2. Obama to meet with labor, business leaders on immigration, February 4, 2013.
3. Obama declines to alter deportation policies in meeting with immigration advocates, February 5, 2013.
4. New York Times editorial, The Immigration Spring, March 31, 2013.